Race and Metaphor in 19th/20th Century American Literature and Thought (MLA Boston; abstracts due March 10, 2012)

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Thomas Morgan
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Race and Metaphor in 19th/20th Century American Literature and Thought
MLA Special Session
January 3-6, 2013, Boston, MA
Abstract Deadline: March 10, 2012

This session takes up connections between metaphor and race, examining the ways that language and cognition influence the interactions between different racial and cultural groups. In doing so, it looks to extend awareness of the interactions between daily language and other discursive systems or practices—literary, social, political, scientific, and/or economic linguistic paradigms, for example—that inform and influence the discussion of race in daily language. In highlighting the relations between different discursive practices, the goal is to understand the ways in which language in general, and metaphor in specific, both conditions and perpetuates the relationships between different groups of people in an unequal manner. Further, unpacking the connections between language and identity will allow us to extend the ways in which Critical Race Theory can be utilized to examine the linguistic configurations that disguise the social forces perpetuating inequality. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), for instance, Toni Morrison engages the tensions created by race and metaphor:

Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological "race" ever was. [...] It seems that it has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before. (63)

Morrison is not alone in noting the relationship between race and metaphor; Ralph Ellison's examination of white insecurity in "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks" (1970) highlights the historic validation whites found in subordinating blacks:

Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the "outsider." (110-1)

In both Morrison and Ellison, the connection between race and metaphor becomes the means to demarcate the boundaries of inclusion and citizenship; the "utility" that Morrison connects to the metaphorical use of race refers to the implied assumptions within language that participate in maintaining the dominant ideology. In Ellison's case, the observation that African Americans exist as a "metaphor for the 'outsider'" points to the linguistic accrual of social and political power in language that occurs over time, specifically as this usage moves from a conscious to unconscious application.

This panel is interested in investigating the manifestation of these ideas in 19th and 20th century American literature and thought. It is open to papers focusing on the function of metaphor and race in individual works (poetry, prose, drama, film, etc.), papers addressing theoretical connections between race and metaphor, as well as papers that engage both simultaneously. How, for example, do individual authors dismantle racial metaphors in their work, or unconsciously (or consciously) make use of racial metaphors to structure ideas across individual or collective works? Are there different strategies employed by different groups of authors in addressing the negative ways in which racial metaphors silently supplement texts as well as the larger national discourse surrounding race? Similarly, how can George Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's ideas concerning the mapping of the source and the target of conceptual metaphors be applied to the metaphorical performance and production of race?

Elizabeth Young, author of Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor and the Carl M. and Elsie A. Small Professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College, will be the respondent for the panel.

Please send 250-500 word abstracts by March 10, 2012 to Thomas Morgan (tmorgan2@udayton.edu).